Astra La Vista: Opel Astra (2000)
1.6 may not look like a nice round figure, but in cars that number has been ideal for quite some time. For car manufacturers, the 1.6 has been the best-selling class of passenger car and its ticket to ever-increasing sales records. For us drivers, the 1.6 has been a good compromise: we spend a little more on monthly payments and gas bills than we would on a base 1.3, but we do get to have more fun behind the wheel.
Now as far back as we can remember, the 1.6 liter has been lorded over by the Japanese car companies. From the 1.6 DX boxy Corolla of the early 80s to the first 16-valver Corolla GL to today's 160-bhp Civic SiR, the 1.6 has been increasingly interesting but still resolutely Japanese. Even value-leader Ford Lynx can traces its roots to a Japanese ancestor in the Mazda 323.
If anyone would want to change that, it would be the car company with the blitz logo. Just two years ago, Opel propelled its Vectra to the top of the 2 liter class, where it reigned briefly before being toppled by the Accord and Cefiro. Can it accomplish the same feat in the 1.6 liter class but this time for good?
The Astra beckoned us to drive it with its friendly face and tightly-chiseled body. The side view in particular is distinctive, with a crease running from the hood section, below the windows, to the taillights. Combined with the chunky C-pillar, the car looks stable and solid, unlike others in the 1.6 category—for example, the Corolla, which has thin pillars and few character lines. Sharply defined wheel arches were an Astra styling cue months before the Ford Focus wore them around its wheels. If there's a disadvantage to the chunky look, it's that the standard 15-inch wheels look too small.
Body panel gaps are admirably tight, and rightly so, as any irregularity would be apparent given the way the doors are shaped. The rear too, is rich with detail, with large triangular taillamps, divided into multi-reflectored rectangular sections. A fold also runs across the trunklid to break up the surface, and topping it all off is the rubber antenna on the roof. Indeed, when you see an Astra beside you on the road, you can't help but give it an admiring glance, particularly when it's at speed.
So does the car drive as good as it looks? We maneuvered our silver test sedan from the AutoWorld parking lot out onto an uphill portion of Quezon Avenue, depressed the accelerator and discovered that it did…nothing. This wiped the smile off my face. It was like pushing the gas pedal of a deactivated arcade game. I actually looked down at the gear lever to make sure it was in "D." From standstill, the car is unbelievably slow to accelerate. On paper, the Vectra goes from 0-100 km/h in 13.5 seconds. In reality, it feels much slower. The Opel personnel advised us to engage the autobox's sport mode. We tried that, but the response was not much better. We have no doubt that the car is capable of reaching 120km/h+, but the build up to speed is painfully slow. This would have to be the Astra's biggest flaw.
Is the engine the culprit here? The Astra is powered by a 1.6 16-valver generating 150 Nm/3600 rpm. Compare this with the Ford Lynx, which has less torque: 148 Nm/ 4000 rpm. Now the Astra is just 60 kg heavier than the Ford, yet the acceleration is much slower. We'd have to conclude that the fault here lies with the automatic transmission.
The four-speed auto gearbox shifts unobtrusively, but the engine-gearbox combination doesn't deliver the instant response that we've come to expect from modern automatics. You won't notice this if you're just puttering around on village roads, but if you're going to merge onto a highway or overtake a truck, better make sure you have plenty of empty road.
Another characteristic that makes small cars fun is quick steering. Unfortunately, the Astra fails to deliver here. The Astra steering is precise and well-damped, but it's too sluggish to allow the driver any fun in carving up traffic. This in turn helps to define the Astra's handling characteristics. There's plenty of grip to had from the chassis, but it's difficult to make quick transitions because of the slow steering and heavily-damped suspension.
The well-damped suspension pays off, though, when it comes to ride quality.Sharp humps, irregular road surfaces and large potholes are all filtered out.This is despite the Astra's non-independent rear suspension.
The front-discs, rear-drums brake system lacks pedal feel, but it's entirely up to the task of slowing down the 1194-kg sedan.ABS is included as standard equipment.
Body and doors are quite heavy and close with a satisfying thunk.The Opel people claim that its steel is much thicker than the competitions, and back it up with a 6-year anti-corrosion warranty.
Cabin space, surprisingly, feels even bigger than the Vectra's.The driver's seat is firm and supportive, and it's easy to find a good position.The rear bench is adequate for two, tight for three.If room is what you need, then the Astra wagon would be a good choice.
If you think the sedan looks good, the wagon looks even better—as is the case with big brothers Vectra and Omega.
Strange choices abound in the interior.The steering wheel is the ubiquitous polyurethane, with the top and bottom arcs covered in hard silver plastic.It may look nice, but it's certainly unpleasant to hold because it's hard and non-absorbent (for those with clammy hands).Again, video game controllers come to mind but these days, video game steering wheels are more pleasant! Spare us the silver on the wheel, just give us something that's comfortable to hold.Once again, the CD player has taken over the entire glovebox, leaving you no place to stick your flashlight or even a pack of Kleenex.
Silver plastic is also found on the front fascia, surrounding the radio and aircon controls. It's not very well-integrated, as there's beige plastic to the sides, and black plastic above it, below it and inside it!The radio looks like one of those pre-digital models, but not to worry: it's thoroughly modern and equipped with a 10-disc changer.The dot-matrix display is above the center airvents, similar to the multi-info display on the Vectra.This one doesn't include a trip computer, though.Speaking of the aircon, it's strong and cool enough to banish memories of warm-dog-breath aircons from 1980s Opels.
One thing missing in the Astra equation is value. When the Vectra topped the 2 liter class, it was due to its comprehensive equipment list and lower price. Opel ruined this winning formula by increasing the price. Since then, its price has seesawed with price increase here, P150k discount there. You'd wonder, how much is the darn thing really worth? Consequently, the Vectra plummeted from the sales charts. See, Philippine car buyers are not fools.
The Astra has an even bigger problem: it is expensive to begin with: PHP815,000 for the sedan AT or P928,000 (!) for the wagon AT. It does have standard ABS, driver's airbag, and anti-theft system, but given the competition it's not good enough. It would actually be fine if it only had to contend with the Civic, which lacks ABS, airbag, anti-theft, etc etc. However, there are now alternatives such as the Ford Lynx, which has all the features of the Astra plus standard leather seats and front fog lamps on the Ghia. The Lynx is not quite as solid as the Astra, but it's more responsive and overall a better drive.
With major improvements in the gearbox and steering, and some fine-tuning of the interior and the price tag, the Astra could reign as the king of 1.6s. As it is, the car doesn't feel as satisfying as it should.
If body solidity and ride quality are number one on your list, then the Astra deserves a look. For fun behind the wheel and outright value, the Japanese (or Japanese-American) still have the upper hand. We hate to admit it, but for now, Civic and Lynx, you have nothing to fear.
By Jason Ang |Photos By Jason and Ulysses Ang